Enrollment Practices Can Hinder Equitable Access to Public Montessori Pre-K Programs

To address pervasive opportunity and achievement gaps in the U.S. education system, some researchers are looking to progressive pedagogies,[1] such as Montessori and Waldorf, that may have the potential to meet children’s unique learning and socio-emotional needs.[2] In particular, the number of Montessori programs within public schools has increased significantly. Most public Montessori pre-K programs (those serving children ages 4 or younger) admit students through a lottery because the demand for available slots typically exceeds the supply. However, certain enrollment policies or practices may create barriers to access, as flagged in the Brady Education Foundation Montessori Initiative Network’s initial research on public Montessori in 2017.

To explore how public Montessori pre-K program enrollment policies might facilitate or limit family access, Child Trends conducted the Equitable Access to Public Montessori project with further support from the Brady Education Foundation. Our team conducted a national landscape scan of 288 public Montessori pre-K programs, surveyed 37 program administrators about their enrollment practices, and interviewed 13 families about how they chose pre-K options. Below, we outline key takeaways regarding potential barriers to access, along with some ways in which programs are promoting more equitable access.

Most public Montessori pre-K programs are located in majority White communities and serve mostly White students; these programs are also more likely to charge families tuition at the pre-K level.

Many of the families we interviewed reported that they prioritized factors such as program location, affordability, diversity, and cultural alignment when exploring pre-K options. However, our analysis of administrative data found that most programs were located in majority White communities (57%), and many served majority White student bodies (41%).[3] The lack of diversity in these programs may discourage Black and Latine[4] families from considering public Montessori pre-K options. Further, majority White programs were more likely than other programs to charge tuition of some or all families. These costs may create barriers to access, particularly for families with low incomes. Future efforts to expand access to public Montessori pre-K should focus not only on who is being served by these programs, but also where the programs are located and how they charge tuition.

Most programs do not use a truly random lottery process to admit students and instead give preference to certain families; this may systematically prevent increased racial, ethnic, and income diversity.

Nearly all public Montessori pre-K programs gave a preference (e.g., priority, weighted, or automatic admission) to certain groups of students in their admission processes. Further, most of those programs prioritized admission for children who already had an existing connection to the program, such as siblings of currently enrolled students or children of school staff. Given that most programs are located in majority White neighborhoods and serve mostly White students, these lottery preferences could further entrench existing disparities.

Many programs are considering ways to combat systemic racism and broaden access to public Montessori pre-K, but their efforts may not go far enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the growing national focus on racial equity have underscored the urgency of addressing social disparities. Many of the Montessori pre-K programs offering distance learning during the pandemic provided children and families with additional supports, including Wi-Fi or hotspot data, devices, and other materials to facilitate at-home learning. Nearly all programs were either currently implementing, or planning to implement, changes to advance racial equity through their practices, such as training teachers on social justice topics, increasing efforts to recruit and retain staff of color, and incorporating racial equity content into school curricula. Fewer programs were considering long-term, structural changes, such as reduced tuition, reserved slots for underserved families, or more targeted recruitment and outreach. While efforts to promote racial equity through changes to programs’ practices represent an important first step, more substantive structural changes are needed to make meaningful strides toward reducing opportunity gaps.

This study was made possible by funding from the Brady Education Foundation and with support from our partners at the Brady Education Foundation Montessori Initiative Network (BEFMIN). A copy of the full Child Trends report can be found here.

The Brady Education Foundation Montessori Initiative Network (BEFMIN) includes Child Trends, The Riley Institute at Furman University, and the University of Kansas Center for Montessori Research. In 2017, the BEFMIN set out to conduct a randomized controlled trial comparing children admitted to public Montessori through a random lottery process to those who applied but were placed on a waiting list. Challenges in recruiting a sufficient sample of children admitted at random led our team to conduct this study exploring equitable access to public Montessori pre-K.

Jackson Fojut and Rowan Hilty are co-lead authors of this blog.

Footnotes and References

[1] Progressive pedagogies are those that tend to focus on experiential learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and both independent and collaborative learning.

[2] Debs, M. (2019). Diverse families, desirable schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[3] For the purposes of this analysis, we defined the “majority” racial/ethnic group of public Montessori pre-K programs and their surrounding communities according to whichever racial/ethnic group made up 50 percent or more of their respective populations. More details regarding our methods and data sources can be found in our final report.

[4] Latine is a gender-neutral version of Latino and Latina.